Keeley: We're very excited about this game. Nervously excited, I suppose. We've played each other since, but the 1987 national title game, specifically Keith Smart's game-winner, remains a serious thorn in our collective side. While some Syracuse fans might say that getting to the Sweet 16 was "the goal" for this season and everything else is gravy, I think that changed when we realized it was Indiana we'd be playing. Is there any such animosity on the other side? What do Indiana fans think of Syracuse?
Kas: Obviously, Smart's shot is one of the most revered moments in the history of Indiana basketball. Naturally, it doesn't quite bring the same emotion to you guys. I can't speak for all Indiana fans, but I don't think there's much dislike for the Orange. You guys certainly have one of the nation's top programs, one that's annually a legitimate Final Four contender.
As for this year, when the brackets came out, it didn't take long to spot the possible Sweet 16 match-up with Syracuse. Honestly, I'm more worried about the Orange than either Marquette or Miami. You guys have size, length, athleticism and that puzzling 2-3 zone. Indiana is going to have to play very well, something it didn't do against Temple. What is the feeling about these Hoosiers from your guys' perspective?
Keeley: Putting history aside, I think Syracuse fans see Indiana as one of the most complete teams we will have played this year. We've seen a lot of good teams with a star (San Diego State., Georgetown) but only one real complete team (Louisville). And as you might have noticed, we struggled. So there's absolutely a sense that, given our ability to disappear at times, this could be it.
However, we also know this Syracuse team has the potential to compete, but it won't be easy. Indiana has something that can really give SU fits -- multiple options. If we shut down Cody Zeller, you can always rely on Victor Oladipo or Christian Watford. And while the 2-3 zone can be formidable, an offense that can move the ball, create opportunities and then make good on those opportunities can spell doom for us.
Sometimes it feels like Syracuse is the only team in the nation that gets the "no-name bench player goes off and hits nine three-pointers to win the game" treatment. If Syracuse can somehow shut down the big Hoosier players, who's the most likely candidate to add his name to that mantle?
Kas: Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey. Hulls is a 6-foot sharpshooter who sometimes struggles to get open in the half-court, but he may be able to shake free a little more often against a zone. Sheehey, the Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year, brings a lot of energy and athleticism off the pine. In addition to being a good shooter, he's great at cutting without the ball, and he has a good mid-range game. Indiana hasn't gone up against many 2-3 zones this year, so it'll be interesting to see how it does offensively.
My major concern with Syracuse is the size of the Orange's guards. Indiana plays two 6-foot-or-smaller guards, Kevin "Yogi" Ferrell and Hulls, major minutes. Do Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche typically have their way with smaller defenders? Louisville and Indiana aren't all that similar, but they are similar in that sense. How'd MCW and Triche do against Russ Smith and Peyton Siva?
Keeley: Carter-Williams and Triche CAN have their way with smaller defenders, but it just depends which version of them shows up. Oftentimes, that switch might happen during a game as well. Against Smith and Siva, the Syracuse duo got tore up thanks to a smothering press that knocked them off their game. Unfortunately, they don't respond all that well to being keyed in on. However, in normal game-play situations, they can hold their own. If I see Indiana pressing, I'm going to be concerned.
Want to throw Syracuse off its game? Get James Southerland in foul trouble. That's what happened against Louisville in the Big East Tournament and that's what happened in the second half against Cal when the Orange offense went ice cold. C.J. Fair might be the most dependable guy on the floor but Southerland is our Big Shot Guy. When he goes out for long stretches, the entire offense puckers up. Is there a guy on Indiana with the same effect? Take him out of the game and the whole dynamic changes?
Kas: Honestly, I'm not sure if Indiana has one guy like that who must be on his game for the Hoosiers to play well. Cody Zeller is probably the closest thing to that. It's not because he is a dominant force, or anything like that, but his presence on the court helps the rest of the puzzle fit together perfectly. Cody has a tendency to struggle down on the block and against physical defenders.
Against Syracuse, I envision him being somebody who catches the ball in the high post and either kicks it out to shooters or attacks the basket with drives. He is much better in that scenario than trying to play one-on-one in the post. Indiana is at its best when it's a fast-paced, up-and-down game. What pace does Syracuse prefer to play?
Keeley: This isn't last year's team, which would have played the entire game in transition if it could have. That said, the Orange do like a quicker pace, with Carter-Williams bringing up the ball and kicking it out to Southerland, Fair or Triche to see what they can make happen. If Indiana wants to take Syracuse's offense out of the game, pressure it and slow things down. The longer Syracuse stays in an offensive set, the more likely it's going to get frustrated.
Thinking a little bit more big picture, what do Indiana fans think of the job Tom Crean has done? From sitting over here, pretty impressive turnaround from when he first got there. Does he need a Final Four to justify his place?
Kas: Crean has done about as well as he possibly could have, considering what the program was when he took over. It's hard to believe, but Indiana went 3-15 in the Big Ten just two years ago. The backbone of the turnaround has been recruiting and player development. Obviously, getting in-state guys like Zeller and Ferrell was big, but the year-to-year improvement of Watford, Sheehey and Oladipo -- from a no-name recruit to lottery pick -- has been just as key. Crean doesn't need to do anything to validate his status as one of the better coaches in America, as far as I'm concerned. The proof is in what he's done the last two seasons.
The team has even made quite a leap this year. The one thing Indiana didn't do last season was win on the road, and this year's group won road games at Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Hopefully, in the years to come, Indiana can become a program like Syracuse, Michigan State, Kansas and Duke, one that's perennially one of the top teams in the country. As an outsider, it seems like Syracuse has a fantastic coach (and one who is definitely entertaining at press conferences). What are the fan base's feelings on coach Boeheim and how he has done with this current group?
Keeley: For the most part, Boeheim can do no wrong. He's earned the right to do and say what he wants and as soon as people start to doubt him, he does something like take Syracuse back to the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth time in five years. Of course, the stigma of "only" having one national title and no Final Fours since 2003 hangs over him, but the sense we get is that he's looking for one more great run to validate his career and then he'll probably hang 'em up in the next 2-4 years. Then again, people said the same thing back in the early 2000's.
I would say that the expectations before the season started were for this Orange squad to be good-not-great and get back to the Sweet 16. They've basically accomplished that, but don't count me among those who now say "everything else is gravy." If you're good enough to get this far, you're good enough to get to the Elite 8, and so on. So while this team might not look as good as last year's, everybody knows that once you get here, anybody is a few lucky bounces away from the Final Four.
So enough of all this conjecture, what's your prediction?
Kas: The Indiana fan in me thinks that there's something magical about this group, one that's been through so much together the past three seasons. When their backs are against the wall in big games (at Michigan State, at Michigan and Temple), the Hoosiers keep finding a way to win. But the realist in me thinks that Syracuse is exactly the type of team that's given Indiana fits this year. Athletic? Check. Long? Check. Big guards? Check. Unusual style? Check (the 2-3). Aggressive rebounders? Big, big check. I'm picking the Orange to pull off the upset, 71-65.
I think Syracuse wins by beating up Indiana on the glass. At times this year, the Hoosiers have been abused on the boards. Minnesota's size and length is very similar to the Syracuse's, and the Gophers rebounded more of their own missed shots than Indiana did when they knocked off the Hoosiers earlier this season. Syracuse averages 12.4 offensive rebounds per game, good for 10th in the nation and a tick below Minnesota (12.8). I like that Crean and the staff have time to prepare for the zone, but in the end, offense isn't going to be the problem.
If this season ends with anything less than a banner, most Indiana fans are going to be disappointed, even though the Hoosiers captured their first outright Big Ten title since 1993. But, for me, the worst part is going to be that I won't get to watch this group -- one of the most beloved in Indiana history -- play together again. What do you see happening, Sean?
Keeley: See, the Syracuse fan in me always has a worst case scenario in the back of his mind. I've watched this team dominate lesser talent and get stymied by teams on the same level. So I go into this game with a lot of trepidation. That said, I go back to the whole "if you're good enough to get this far, you're good enough to go one more" mentality and I'm going to pick Syracuse to win 62-61.
The vengeful jerk in me wants C.J. Fair to hit a jumper in the corner with three seconds left to echo the Keith Smart loss, but that might be too much to ask. If the Orange lose, I'm sure we'll get to a point soon where we'll look at the season as a success but for the moment, we want to get back to that elusive next level.